The World Health Organization defined self-care like this: “Self-care is what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, prevent and deal with illness. It is a broad concept encompassing; hygiene (general and personal); nutrition (type and quality of food eaten); lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure, etc.); environmental factors (living conditions, social habits, etc.); socio-economic factors (income level, cultural beliefs, etc.); self-medication.”

Your doctor and your family are partners in maintaining your well-being. But there is no medicine as powerful as what you can do to take care of yourself. Your health-care professionals can be guides in what has been shown to be healthy and what is recommended for you. By doing everything you can to take care of yourself, you will limit the number of external interventions (medications, procedures) you need. Your friends and family and your community are also vital to your mental health. Mental health is just as important to your overall health as physical health, and the two are very closely intertwined.

4 key facets to self-care

1. The most obvious to people is the physical. There are a number of ways to do this: By getting the amount of sleep you need (most adults need seven to eight hours a night). By exercising regularly (at least 30 minutes a day at least five days out of seven — and more is even better). By eating well — fruits and vegetables, choosing unrefined carbohydrates (brown rice, bread and pasta; fruits) rather than refined ones (white rice, bread and pasta; sugar), choosing healthier fats (plant-based, fish) as opposed to unhealthy ones (trans fats, saturated fats).

2. The next way is mental, which goes with social: do what you need to do to keep yourself mentally healthy. Take time for yourself. Think of others (doing for others has been shown to make us feel better). Be active, as exercise has been shown to help stave off depression. Spend time with those whom you care about and who care about you. Practise your faith. Practise mindfulness.

3. And yet another way is environmental: make your space clean and neat and comfortable. An organized workspace makes one more efficient, and a comfortable home base is a place to recharge and feel relaxed.

4. The remainder make up the seven pillars of self-care (see sidebar below) — being knowledgeable about your health, when something is wrong and when you need to seek help, avoiding risk by doing things such as not smoking and practising good hygiene to prevent the spread of infection. Finally, using health-care products and services in an educated, informed manner will save you and the system time and money.

8 positive effects of self-care

1. Less reliance on medications. By taking care of yourself your health will improve, and you won’t need medications for some things that are related to an ideal lifestyle. For example, if you are healthier and slimmer, you may no longer need blood pressure and cholesterol medications, you may not need anxiety and depression medication and, if you are diabetic, you may need less medication to control it.
2. Improved feeling of self-reliance, self-confidence and well-being.
3. Improved physical health.
4. Improved mental health.
5. Improved relationships with family and friends. As noted above, self-care actually involves nurturing the important relationships you have, which in turn leads to better relationships and better mental health.
6. Savings of time and money spent on health care.
7. Stronger social networks.
8. Better doctor-patient relationships. Doctors and patient relationships thrive when both are active partners.

3 things you can do to practise better self-care

1. Read and follow the label directions when using over-the-counter medicines and natural health products.
2. Talk to your doctor, your pharmacist or trusted health professional about your self-care options, and ask them to recommend trusted accessible resources, such as Telehealth Ontario, including those online.
3. Remember that you do not have to and should not do this alone. Even though it is called self-care, it is best achieved with the help of trusted advisers (your doctor, pharmacist) and those who support you (friends and loved ones).

7 Pillars of Self-Care

1. Health literacy
2. Self-awareness
3. Physical activity
4. Healthy eating
5. Risk avoidance
6. Good hygiene
7. Optimal use of products and services

It’s not as hard as it may seem. Even at its simplest, self-care can be practised in many ways.

People practice self-care when they:

Brush their teeth
Quit smoking
Apply sunscreen
Practise first aid
Manage joint pain
Get a good night’s sleep
Manage a fever
Cope with allergies
Take a daily walk

Dr. Zachary Levine is an assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at McGill University Health Centre and medical correspondent for AM740 (a ZoomerMedia property).

A version of this story was originally published online on Sept. 26, 2018